What is genuine in the digital age? Performa Poetry Series’ “What if someone told u you were significant?” plunges the viewer into a maelstrom of experimentation in order to answer this question. The performance combines Heather Phillipson’s installation “Final Days” with the work of contemporary Alt Lit poets like Harry Burke and Morgan Parker. Alt-Lit, a play on alternative literature that implies the keyboard button, strives to meld poetry with modern Internet writing.
As a translation of the Internet’s intangible elements into an immersive environment, “Final Days” works beautifully. The exhibit takes shape through psychedelic video installations; large posters reminiscent of underwear advertisements; and stacked cardboard boxes decorated with anatomical hearts, female thighs, and index fingers. Everything pulses and radiates energy. The work is hypnotic, yet impossible to retain. It’s as if the viewer has entered a physical representation of clickbait content: insubstantial, exciting, superficial, fascinating.
The poetry also aims to represent the digital world and how it impacts our interactions. Harry Burke’s writing—read carefully from a smartphone and accompanied by sounds that suggest both a crackling hearth and the static of a poor connection—captures the distraction, detachment, and isolation that is frequently viewed as symptomatic of the virtual. Burke successfully emulates how we speak and communicate online, but his poems are not solely exercises on form. He questions the motivations of those around him and struggles to express his own feelings. Through banal social media phrasing, he is able to impart unique meaning.
Although the literary and visual elements both broadly achieve their aims of commentary on modern life, the combination feels cluttered. As the poets read their works, videos from the art installation flashes in the background. The audience finds themselves at risk of losing track of the authors’ verses and meaning. Similarly, in order to hear the poets, the sound from Phillipson’s installation had to be turned off, diluting both.
Unfortunately, “What if someone told u you were significant?” does not succeed in combining multiple artistic perspectives. Phillipson’s work suggests that modern online popular culture is fundamentally a distraction from the substantial. Distraction plays a role in the poetry as well. But, in this case, the poet is demonstrating the difficulties of expressing deep emotion—distractions are a form of avoidance, not a critique of shallowness. The performance and installation offer quite different perspectives.
This, of course, could be intentional. Nevertheless, the arrangement forces the performance and installation to compete for the viewer’s attention in a manner that weakens both. The two present viewpoints that are thematically connected, but neither benefits from the presence of the other. You see the art. You hear the poems. You do not hear the art and see the poems.